More on the Overpass Light Brigade: OLB is Challenging Free Speech Restrictions
Overpass Light Brigades across the country joined in support of Walmart workers and the Organization United for Respect (OUR Walmart) on Thursday night, as they took part in what the Nation called the largest US strike ever against the world’s largest employer. Using Facebook and other modern methods of mobilization, Light Brigades from at least a half dozen cities worked almost simultaneously at different Walmarts around the nation.
Lining up on the street, we fielded questions from various news agencies. They were out in force, trolling for stories. “Why are you doing this?” “What do you hope to accomplish?” “Why Walmart?” Shoppers zoomed by, eager to get the low, low prices synonymous with rapacious retailing. As shoppers rushed by, they either seemed perplexed by our presence, or directly supportive of us. There were a few mumbles of “I hate unions,” but it was generally positive or neutral. We added a holiday protest festive touch to their evening – our chants, noise of song from the blaring speakers, short speeches, news crews running around with cameras and crew, our own phalanx of street photographers, and a growing cluster of security and management off at stage right, emitting the dark light of questioned authority.
I attended a protest at a Walmart in South Austin. Though it was called by members of OUR Walmart, I wasn’t able to verify that any workers walked out anywhere in Austin, though there were reports of walkouts in Dallas. It was hard to blame the workers, given reports of widespread threats against worker walkouts. At the location where we gathered on Ben White in Austin, Texas Rangers were present. Rangers have a very long history of being used for strike-breaking. A Ranger, along with a group of Walmart managers, monitored protesters the entire time we were present. I was threatened with arrest for taking their photo while on Walmart property.
The protest was led instead by the Austin Overpass Light Brigade, who gathered on a sidewalk and grassy public median along the road where Black Friday shoppers had to pass their message of WALK OUT ON WALMART. The unique Walmart logo-turned-frown was especially popular. Though the group was monitored by as many as four Austin Police Department squad cars, the officers did not interfere. A member of the Peaceful Streets Project Austin was also present to monitor the action.
Without police interference, the Austin Overpass Light Brigade succeeded in its original intention — to create an action that could be attended by people who are not normally occupiers or even activists. Of the almost thirty people who attended and helped hold signs over the course of the night, almost half were new to the group. Some were existing activists, like two members of a local Communist Party, but others were simply interested in helping stand against Walmart or attracted by the simplicity of the Light Brigade.
Creative Direct Action in Texas Walmarts
Occupiers brought numbers and their boldness in direct action to Black Friday protests nationwide. Protesters from Occupy McAllen snuck into a Walmart to enact what they called OpStickyWal, where they left sticky notes on products throughout the store. Members of Occupy Austin engaged in the same action on Thanksgiving night until they were caught by the Rangers and escorted from the store. At other locations, pumpkin pies were delivered with a message for Walmart workers, though it’s unclear whether workers got to eat them or whether management “had” to throw them away. Austin occupiers returned to the same store Friday to distribute a two-sided flier about labor organization (PDF Links: side 1 and side 2) until management threatened to call the police and charge them with solicitation.
An even bolder action took place on Thursday night while the Light Brigade stood outside. Splitting into small groups, they filtered into the store separately. One group was caught carrying a bullhorn into the store (the same one used at a previous Walmart mic-check) and escorted out by Rangers. I was caught filming, along with a young activist named Nathan, and briefly held by Troopers. Trooper Colombo shouted at me, “Who are you working for?” and searched my back pockets, but eventually I left when he said I was not being detained. Nathan was also released.
With the police perhaps distracted by the other groups, a third party successfully assembled by the televisions in the electronics section where they carried out a ‘mic check.’ Witnesses reported Troopers violently shoving customers out of the way to get to the group who still finished their speech then proceeded to hop and skip out of the store while chanting, “What’s disgusting? Union Busting!” There were no arrests, though a single member was banned from the store for 24 hours.
The mic check, which can be seen in this short video, reads:
Mic check! Mic check!
Attention Walmart shoppers
We are Occupy Austin
We are here today
In thankful solidarity
With Walmart workers
Across the country
Who Are on Strike
For better wages
& reliable scheduling
We call on Walmart
To pay livable wages
To increase access to heathcare
To provide reliable scheduling
And end retaliation against workers immediately
We are Occupy Austin
We love Walmart workers
Photos in this article are by Kit O’Connell and released under a Creative Commons NonCommercial Share-Alike license, except detainment photo by Katt Freedom (used with permission).